During the American civil war, shipments of cotton to the textile factories in England ground to a halt. This resulted in a massive surge of unemployment among working class women in textile towns.
Most tax funded social welfare programs were not implemented until over half a century later. In a world where the basic necessities of life could only be accessed by exchanging earned money for them, unemployment was a life-threatening condition.
While crushing poverty impacted women throughout the mill towns of colonial England, another pressing social issue arose in the colonies. On Vancouver Island, 90% of the settlers were single men. Without hope of settling down and starting a family with a partner from the same background, many of these fortune seekers turned to drinking, gambling, violence and murder.
A group of socially conscious, wealthy English people formed to address these problems. They concluded that they could kill two birds with one stone by sending the unemployed women of England to the colonies, where they would inevitably couple with the sexually frustrated men of British Columbia, resolving their own financial concerns (through marriage) as they reined in the profligacy of colonial men.
To this end, the British Columbia Emigration Society pooled their resources to send several shipments of “brides” to Victoria. One of these was named “the Robert Lowe”, which is very easy to rhyme, and is also pictured above. Some women bailed out at the first port of call in San Francisco. Some took opportunities to attain financial independence as teachers or housekeepers and declined to marry, but the majority accepted a hasty marriage proposal. The details are recounted in the book Voyages of Hope.
The Robert Lowe
Lyrics and music by Kerri Coombs
Come listen to my story girls, I’ll tell you of my home
And how it came about that I became inclined to roam
Your dad and me, we settled here, but I came here alone
With forty other workin’ girls upon the Robert Lowe
In eighteen fifty-one I was quite gainfully employed
When cotton came to Manchester, we ladies were deployed
There was ready cash for any lass who could weave or spin or sew
But the Yankees fought and all we got was a bunk on the Robert Lowe
The workhouse or the wilderness that lies across the sea
Your cabins won’t be pretty but your passage will be free
Will you tame some rowdy miner in a distant colony?
Choose the workhouse or the wilderness and sweet matrimony
The gentry of the moneyed class, they met to plan our fate
With half the parish unemployed, our misery to abate
When over in the colonies the gold began to flow
They dug into their pockets to supply the Robert Lowe
When we pulled in to Victoria we had an awful shock
A hundred lads for every lass, proposing on the dock
Your dad, he flashed a wad of cash and asked me for my hand
And before I lost my sea legs, I’d acquired a wedding band
About the Artist
In her youth, Kerri created a prodigious repertoire of over 60 original songs, nearly all of them relating to how she felt personally and how her relationships were going. Despite positive feedback, college radio appearances and numerous gigs in folk clubs, festivals and songwriter showcases, her well of youthful angst eventually ran dry. Unsure what else there was to write about, she spent the next decade collecting and performing traditional songs from a wide variety of genres and cultures. This project is an integration of her “songwriter” and “traditional music” backgrounds.